Mirror Check: Are you a “T” or an “L”?

Do you have a tight or a loose mind-set? And how much of the answer has to do with your the culture of your country, your workplace, your household?

Read on, to learn the answers and to take a quiz, via Michele Gelfand’s acclaimed and fascinating new book Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World!

Back in 2012, Slate magazine reporter Dahlia Lithwick had an ingenious realization: The Muppets, those beloved puppet characters from Sesame Street, offer an intriguing paradigm for explaining humanity’s differences. Called Muppet Theory, Lithwick’s delightful metaphor divides people into two groups: those who emanate chaos, much like Cookie Monster, Gonzo, Animal, and Ernie; and those who embody order—think Sam the Eagle, Kermit the Frog, Scooter, and Bert. The Chaos Muppets among us are tumultuous yet dazzling forces of nature who bring mayhem wherever they go. They think outside the box, live for new experiences, and are proudly nonconformist. The passionate drummer Animal is hard to miss in a crowd, with his red fur and disheveled pink hair. When everyone is going one way, he leaps in the opposite direction. His drum solos, performed with abandon, share a lot in common with Cookie Monster’s joyous eating sprees. Unlike these Chaos Muppets, the Order Muppets are overly cautious and fastidious, the ones cleaning up Cookie Monster’s crumbs. Bert, for example, relishes his morning oatmeal and enjoys hobbies such as studying pigeons and collecting paper clips. Always dressed neatly in pressed khakis and striped sweater, he’s often providing reality checks to his roomie, Ernie, who is always experimenting with fanciful ideas.

Which type of Muppet are you? You’d think your answer would depend a lot on your innate personality. But it turns out that the tightness or looseness of your environment plays a big part in whether you’re more Gonzo or Kermit.

We’ve seen how tightness-looseness plays out in a wide range of groups and entities, from nations to vocations. Tight cultures have strong social norms and little tolerance for deviance, while loose cultures have weak social norms and are highly permissive. The former are rulemakers; the latter are rule breakers.

It’s also true that the underlying strength of our culture’s social norms affects our dispositions and even our brains. Without even realizing it, each of us has developed tight and loose mind-sets that effortlessly help us navigate our social surroundings.

Far more than a mere mood or even an attitude, a mind-set is like the program we use to make decisions. The tight mind-set involves paying a great deal of attention to social norms, a strong desire to avoid mistakes, a lot of impulse control, and a preference for order and structure. Relishing routine, it requires a keen sensitivity to signs of disorder. The loose mind-set, by contrast, is less attentive to social norms, more willing to take risks, more impulsive, and more comfortable with disorder and ambiguity. These different mind-sets influence our daily lives and relationships in ways that we might not be fully aware.

We all have a baseline tight or loose mind-set that was shaped by the culture in which we grew up. Some of us are fundamentally more prone to a tight mind-set, like the cautious and tidy Order Muppets, while others tend toward a looser mind-set, like the carefree and boisterous

Chaos Muppets. Being raised in a culture with clearly defined social norms fosters a tighter mind-set and vice versa. While these mindsets are deeply rooted, they can nonetheless be molded—sometimes in dramatic and rapid fashion—to match different situational requirements.

From the time we wake up to the moment we go to bed, we experience the ebb and flow of tight and loose mind-sets. They show up in our households: Are you a helicopter parent or more laid-back? Do your children follow the rules or do they challenge them frequently? If you have a partner, you might see tight-loose tensions play out in different attitudes about religion, savings, or neatness. Do you get grief about your poor dishwashing skills or tendency to leave damp towels on the bed (as I do), or are you the neatnik?

During your train commute, if you take a seat in the “quiet car,” you might be annoyed when someone enters with a looser mindset and talks loudly on the phone. You’ll also see these mindsets at your place of work, whether you’re employed in a buttoned-up law office that has a lot of formalities, or a loose start-up where everyone’s wearing jeans and hoodies while playing ping-pong. Small changes to our environment can trigger significant changes in our mindsets. If you and your boss are having a client meeting in a conference room, you’re likely to be in a tighter state of mind—weighing each word and sitting up straight as a result—than if you’re trouble-shooting with a colleague in your office. Even your hobbies can activate different mental grooves. Highly structured and rule-bound activities, like playing bridge or doing Karate, foster a tight mindset, whereas more spontaneous and open-ended activities, like painting or hip-hop dancing, foster a loose mindset.  

As we navigate these different facets and transitions to our day, our tight-loose

settings move up and down the scale, sometimes to the point of stress. That doesn’t mean we are purely reactive, however. Each of us has a default setting on the tight-loose spectrum, which reflects our upbringing, geography, generational attitudes, social class, occupation, and other factors. You may have a predominantly tight mind-set due to strict socialization by your parents or hardships you’ve experienced in your personal life. If you have a looser mindset, you may have lived in safer circumstances or moved around a lot, experiencing a diverse array of norms.

Think about where your own set point is on the tight-loose spectrum: Are you more of an Order Muppet or a Chaos Muppet? To determine this, ask yourself three questions and then take the TL mindset quiz at https://www.michelegelfand.com/tl-quiz

  1. How much do you notice the norms around you and the expectations that people have of you?
  2. Do you tend to be cautious and controlled, or adventurous and impulsive?
  3. Are you a creature of habit—preferring structure and social order—or do you enjoy situations that are less structured?

Once we understand the differences between tight and loose mind-sets, we can start to see how they drive conflicts in many areas of life. One of my colleagues, for example, is engaged in a perpetual tight-loose debate with her husband over how to raise their kids. Coming from a loose background, he prefers giving their children a lot of freedom to make mistakes, and he reserves reprimands for very serious occasions. By contrast, to enforce a “tight ship,” his wife, who comes from a tighter background, tries to regularly monitor their children and closely control their schedules, and she reprimands them for even small deviations from her expectations. (Think the free-range parenting movement versus the proverbial “Tiger Mom”). Equipped with a tight and loose vocabulary, parents like these can identify the roots of their conflict and, more important, begin to negotiate solutions. For example, my colleague and her husband could compromise by jointly deciding which domains should be tighter for their children (such as use of social media) and which can be looser (such as adherence to immaculate grooming). Like any “win-win” negotiation, we can prioritize the domains we feel strongly about and trade-off on domains that are less important.

How do you see tight and loose patterns playing out in your life? Think about people who cause you stress at home, at work, or at holiday dinners with in-laws. Could a tight-loose gap between you be one of the major factors of discord? Taking the time to consider what a neighbor, colleague, or relative deems a major threat can be a game-changer. While cultural style doesn’t excuse all behaviors you find frustrating, it can help you see the “why” behind the “what the…?” Far from calcifying stereotypes with cultural labels, tight-loose theory can help deepen our empathy toward those whose ways just don’t sync up with ours.